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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tondo Portrait of the Severan Family

In a previous post we looked at a dynastic portrait on a gem (the Gemma Claudia).  Here we have another dynastic portrait—not a relief carved in stone but a painting on wood (circular in shape, hence called a roundel or tondo).  The paint used was tempera, pigments mixed into egg yolk.  You may recall that some of the Fayum mummy portraits (see the previous post) were made with tempera on wood, although most were painted in encaustic.  And like the Fayum portraits, this tondo was made in Egypt.  What sets it apart is that its subject is the imperial family.  To date it is the only painted imperial portrait to have come down to us.  Unlike the Fayum portraits, its provenance is unknown.  We can only guess how it was displayed. 

Another contrast with the Julio-Claudian group portraits: this portrait is from a later age, that of the Severans.  The dynasty began with Septimius Severus (emperor from AD 193 to his death in 211), shown here with his wife Julia Domna and two sons Geta and Caracalla.  Geta is on the left, and his face has been erased in what was called a damnatio memoriae.  His brother Caracalla had Geta murdered and ordered that his memory be damned, that is, that all of his public images and inscriptions be destroyed.

We can see big changes in the iconography since the period of the Julio-Claudians.  You remember that the Gemma Claudia showed the imperial figures in profile.  Not so in the Severan tondo.  The figures are frontal, with larger-than-life eyes.  They wear the attributes of their elevated rank: scepters, diadems, fancy garments with gold borders.  Julia Domna wears a pearl necklace and pearl earrings.  We are far away from the iconography of the Julio-Claudians: the focus is on imperial majesty, not on the civic virtues that bring bounty to the empire.  Indeed, as Steven Tuck (A History of Roman Art [2015] 276) notes, “the elements of imperial portraiture that would become standard in the fourth century CE are already here at the beginning of the third.”

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